Italian cinema is such a treasure trove of disparate rubrics. Neo-realism has become such an enshrined film movement that much of the more commercial and non-neo-realistic films that came out of Italy have become overlooked. This picture is practically the absolute polar opposite of anything resembling neo-realism. Much of it, almost all of it, actually, plays like a glossy, hyper-surreal Rodgers and Hammerstein production. Some of the plot is, seemingly intentionally, fairly confusing in its concrete construction, with parallel storylines and a deliriously blurred sense of reality and fantasy. In this way, the film takes one aback, reminding the viewer a little of Federico Fellini and his mesmerizing playing with surreality juxtaposed against reality. In this way, Carosello napoletano is a richer film than one may initially think. It inspires an inchoate, surprised but satisfied reaction, perhaps primarily because it so robustly believes in itself, and commits itself to the almost kaleidoscopic hopping between the already glistening “reality” with which it commences and the staged, simulacrum fantasy created to depict varying times of Naples' deeply fascinating history.
That “reality” is of a large family in 1950s Naples. Wayfaring their way through the beautiful city, the patriarch, Antonio 'Pulcinella' Petito (Leonide Massina), speaks of the grand history of Naples, and the singularly Italian ability to convey the entire heightened panoply of emotions so characteristic of Italian people in song. One of Antonio's children loses a piece of paper in the canal that evidently has at least several of these famed Italian songs inscribed on it. Magically the paper sinks downward, its inscriptions glowing goldenly. From there, the film speedily takes the viewer on a wildly uninhibited trip of phantasmagoria, rendered in sensational colors and merry song.
Counting the songs down or simply noting the series in which they occur does not do the film proper justice. Much of the amusement seeps through the small subtle strokes that fall between some of the more sweeping highs obligatory in a splashy musical such as this. The characterizations are sweetly endearing, gifted by a contentedness of spirit by the filmmakers that aids the film in its admittedly well-traversed and -travailed conceptual hallmarks. Written by a three-person team of Remigio Del Grosso, Giuseppe Marotta and director Ettore Giannini, the film jubilantly reveals the innermost desires of a diverse array of characters. Separated by episodic vignettes of musical rapture, figures of immediately recognized psychological constitution emerge.
In one remarkably choreographed segment, a pretty laundress named Donna Brigida (Maria Fiore) hires a shadowy, furtive but disarmingly amiable and beaming creator of mysterious potions, to make a charming and handsome seller of French pins fall in love with her. Ultimately the situation descends into a full-scale street fight between two bustling groups of women. The scene is a highlight, so buoyantly hilarious and delightfully climactic, it endearingly concludes with an ode to the magnificent Italian history of the opera. A man in the rain, resting on a building landing, belts out an operatic tune, shattering hotel windows much to the annoyance of a Swedish man trying to get some sleep. Singing a love song, the man singing attracts the attention of a lady standing behind him, closed off inside.
Sophia Loren is radiant and vulnerable as Sisina, the daughter of a famed stage actress, singer and dancer (Dolores Palumbo), who follows her mother into that life, of an entertainer. Loren's breathtaking pulchritude, here cinematically recorded at the age of nineteen, is, while overpowering, never counters the narrative objective of drawing palpable sentiment and finally heartache. Sisina loses her great love to World War I, and the sequence of her saying farewell to him at the immortalized place of disuniting, a train. When Sisina learns of her lover's fate, the moment is powerful, but given the added poignancy of her having to go back out on-stage only a minute later for an encore performance. As the other ladies, unaware of Sisina's tragedy, smile brightly for the adoring audience, Sisina finally slinks before them, fruitlessly attempting to appear happy. The moment concludes, and the camera pulls back to reveal the women standing in a medium-sized room with a camera recording.
Thus the picture purposefully befogs the line between reality and fantasy. In Carosello napoletano, the reality is of a movie being made about the history of Naples—or is it? The film's beginning, with a Moorish invasion of the chaste, unguarded city hundreds of years in the past, establishes the telling of history as a recollection of tragedies. The finale is of a single woman in Naples being terrified by the oncoming Moorish soldiers, dressed incongruously in more native African dress, so as to accentuate the cultural and ethnic affray. As Antonio tells it to a group of bystanders on a street, after the film dissolves back from this spectacle (conveyed with the Moorish warriors dancing and singing as they heedlessly overtake the city and split a particular love in Naples the film had nascently followed apart), life can be one perplexing and bewildering arc of disenchantments, and, with this specific point highlighted, the film posits the same is true of history, whether it be of a country, province or city.
Like Rob Marshall's Chicago, the film's swapping of reality and fantasy, with the fantastical sequences played out in ebullient musical numbers. Unlike that 2002 musical, however, this film does not posit its fantasy episodes in psychological terms, emanating from the protagonist. This is a film working as a legerdemain, providing its own rationale distinctly apart from any of the characters but perhaps Antonio and his large brood. It is a fascinating manner in which to create a musical, especially one so effervescent as this, if admittedly simple as well.
Carosello napoletano is occasionally too self-satisfied, with at least a few sequences that unfortunately move with a glacial pacing. The denouement is overlong and perhaps intentionally borderline obscene in its limitless grandiosity and operatic chaos. However, this, evidently considered the first modern Italian musical—a moniker this reviewer can neither confirm nor dispute—is winningly produced and colorfully vivacious. Produced by Carlo Ponti, with spectacular production design by Mario Chiari, costume design by Maria De Matteis and complementary cinematography by Piero Portalupi, this film revels in being fun, with all of the sugary weightlessness and bauble-like occupation as a finely tuned, in more than one way, diversion. Representing the hopes, dreams, loves, disappointments and simply the ups and downs of the dynamic city of Neapolis (established as such sometime in the fifth century B.C., meaning “New City” in Greek), the film makes anyone want to believe in both the reality and the fantasy, not just of this city, but of all places where people move, mingle and moil.